July 08, 2012


David Ellis

WHAT ever it is about trains that attracts people – and it seems the older the trains, the more the attraction – Trainworks has struck gold doing it with the largest rail museum in the Southern Hemisphere.

And located at Thirlmere around just an hour's drive southwest of Sydney's CBD, it attracts 34,000 visitors a year.

It's amazing collection includes Australia's most-powerful-ever steam locomotive and by contrast one of our oldest, our most palatial rail carriage and conversely our most-feared, and seemingly anything in-between.

Visitors are particularly thick on the ground on Sundays, which feature old-days steam train rides from Thirlmere Station to the little village of Buxton and back. These 50-minutes of nostalgia for oldies are equally an eye-opener for kids, teens and younger adults into the way we travelled, and how we moved everything from freight and foodstuffs to prisoners and even our dead, in yesteryear.

And several times a year there's even the chance for the kids to meet Thomas the Tank Engine, the Fat Controller, Toby and Henry, take a ride on a vintage train pulled by Donald the Black Engine, or enjoy jumping castles, an inflatable slide, face painting, storytelling – and of course photos with Thomas (whose next visit is the weekend of July 14 and 15.)

Opened by rail-buff volunteers as the NSW Rail Transport Museum in 1975, Trainworks is now managed by Railcorp's Office of Rail Heritage and run in conjunction with a strong base of still volunteers of the Rail Transport Museum.

And a recent $30m refurbishment widened its appeal beyond its traditional base of purely train enthusiasts, to families, schools for educational outings, and to social groups and clubs for fund-raising through a day out with a difference.

Sprawling over 5ha (more than 12 acres) the site also embraces Thirlmere's very beginning from the 1860s as a tent-town for workers on the Sydney-Goulburn Great Southern Railway: there's still the original railway station opened in 1885, the Station Master's Cottage built to an American design in 1891 that was Thirlmere's first brick building, and the Co-Op Shed built around 1908.

But most captivating are the locomotives, carriages, freight wagons and railway paraphernalia, with visitors able to meander through numerous restored historic passenger carriages to re-live our rail past, or peer through their windows into the interiors of others too valuable to risk damaging. These latter include the circa-1901 Governor-General's carriage that's owned by the Powerhouse Museum and housed at Trainworks, and which is a veritable palace on wheels that would cost over $1m to replace today.

By contrast there's the last of just four-ever prison vans used to transport inmates between prisons around the state from 1915 to 1975, an austere, barred compartment with bare-board seating for 14 male prisoners with a toilet at one end, a room for five warders in the middle, and compartment for eight female prisoners with toilet at the other end.

There's also an interesting Travelling Post Office once used for sorting mail on-the-move to country centres, an unusual little Rail Pay Bus whose bus body was adapted to travel on rail to deliver rail workers' wages, steam locomotive E18 that was built in 1866 and served a near-100 years, a display explaining how signals and points work – and a funeral cart on which coffins were delivered to one-time funeral trains.

Other restored or partly-restored carriages include old Sydney suburban electrics, the 3-car Broken Hill Silver City Comet, sleeping, dining and lounge cars from the one-time all-First Class Sydney to Melbourne Southern Aurora, once steam-hauled country passenger train carriages, buffet cars – and a so-called 'dog box' lavatory car.

Amongst goods wagons are an original Arnotts Biscuits van, Shell tanker, grain and coal hoppers, a rail horse box and a guard's van.

And for those whose love is locomotives there are seventeen on static display including Australia's once most-powerful steam loco, the 260 tonne Garratt, six various class operational steam locos, while the famous 3801 fast express loco can be seen in overhaul in the Roundhouse workshops

The Roundhouse also has a 33m turntable that can swing locos onto seven different tracks and is one of only three of its magnitude in NSW.

For details, entry prices, cost of steam train rides and Thomas the Tank Engine's visit: (02) 4681 8001 or www.trainworks.com.au



[] BACK in time: locomotive E18 built in 1866 saw a near-100 years service.

[] TRAINWORKS Great Hall a steam train lovers paradise.

[] STEAM train day: Sundays at Thirlmere Station.

[] EVERY boy wants to be a steam train driver – starting young with Trainworks.

[] FAVOURITES with everyone: Thomas readying for a day out at Trainworks.

(Photos: Trainworks)

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